Ingrida Šimonytė, Prime Minister of Lithuania
Freedom is not air to be taken for granted
25.11.2022 10:30

Ukrinform sat down with the head of Lithuania’s Government, Ingrida Šimonytė, to talk about her country’s support for Ukraine, Russia’s hybrid threats the nation is facing, among other members of the European Union, Ukraine’s post-war reconstruction, and ways to leave behind energy dependency on Russia.

Anything we can give to Ukraine now we are giving

Lithuania has been supporting the Ukrainian people since the first days of open Russian aggression. We are grateful for the help provided by your Government, for the powerful international support, which would not be possible without Lithuania's strong voice. Could you please share some of the most expressive stats regarding your country’s assistance to Ukraine? Perhaps, the most telling, striking examples?

The value of support provided so far could be somewhere between EUR 600 million and EUR 700 million. But there’s a tricky part in this, especially when it comes to military aid, which is about a third of the total sum provided. In many cases, it was ammunition or some equipment of which we had already been in possession, especially at the onset of Russian aggression. We immediately thought: “What can we give away?” We would dive into our stock and give anything we could. But how does one value these assets? This can be valued either by the books, or residual value, or you can apply replacement value. So it is not really about the sums. Indeed, there are things that can be easily measured, like the money transferred to the World Bank or the National Bank of Ukraine, for support of IDPs or some other projects, like the Fund we have for Ukrainian refugees currently staying in Lithuania.

We just look for what Ukraine needs on the battleground or energy sector, we take these things and send them to Ukraine. So I wouldn’t run into a race with other countries to show that we’re doing more or better than them. The point is that anything we can give to Ukraine now we are giving.

Every Ukrainian I met was saying “I’m coming home as soon as I can”

Speaking of Ukrainian citizens fleeing the war – we all see that they are welcome in Lithuania. How many Ukrainians have currently found shelter in Lithuania? What refugee support programs are currently in place?

We have around 70,000 Ukrainian refugees, basically women and children, registered in Lithuania after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. One might say this is not a big number but in terms of the ratio with the population, more than 2% percent, this is substantial. The biggest challenge is that half of this number is children. Of course, this implies extra issues to care about, including preschool, schooling, the potential of these children to actually go to classes. In the beginning, quite many of these children would take classes online from Ukrainian schools, but the longer the war continues, the more it becomes clear that kids need to go to real schools. In general, people who are registered under the temporary shelter program here in Lithuania get whatever support Lithuanian people would get – material assistance, housing costs, child payments, and others. Also, there’s lots of private initiatives. Especially in the beginning, municipal transportation was free, insurance companies and other businesses were offering their services free of charge or at lower prices.

But the longer people stay in Lithuania, the more they become part of our society, at least for the time being. I believe we are the top nation in the EU in terms of the share of able-bodied people who are in the labor market. So the Ukrainians are paying for their support because they’re paying taxes – working in the hospitality sector, retail trade, schools, and other jobs. This is a big difference from migration from the Middle East and North Africa, which Alexander Lukashenko has arranged for us in 2021. Those were people just willing to cross through the country to live elsewhere, like Berlin or Amsterdam. Ukrainians are absolutely different. I was working at the registration centers, along with my ministers, as we were short of hands. Every person I met was saying “I’m coming home as soon as I can.” So we just need to help people go through this complicated period.

The risk of incidents like that in Poland is increasing

Ukrainians did flee their country to safer places, including Lithuania. But as a country bordering Russia, Lithuania is also in the focus of various threats. We remember the crisis with the transit of Russian goods to Kaliningrad and the threats some Russian officials voiced of resolving the situation by military means. Now how did the missile incident in Poland affect the assessment of the security situation? How likely do you believe is Russia's military provocation against Lithuania?

This cannot be written off completely but if you act or adjust your act relying on Russian rhetoric, then you won’t be able to do anything. They’ve been threatening everybody all along the way, targeting Vilnius, Warsaw, London, and others. This is how they behave. Ironically, in this situation we feel much safer than we did two years ago. At that juncture, we were debating a lot with our partners whether Russia is a real threat. We were told that we are overreacting, that this is our past trauma speaking, and that Russia cannot be that stupid.

Now, after Feb. 24, the situation is crystal clear. This has actually reinvigorated NATO’s stamina. It has been laid down in the Madrid Summit conclusions that Russia is a threat. We’re seeing higher presence of our partners on the ground, which will further increase in the future. We have increased security and defense spending, including here in Lithuania and in our region, but also in Germany, which is a U-turn after so many decades. We have Sweden and Finland on the path of joining NATO – a great “achievement” of Mr Putin – and this is basically why you feel much safer.

But what’s important, if we come back to this incident in Poland, is that Russia is doing poorly on the battlefield due to the heroic Ukrainian Army, so they choose to fight civilians. And this fight against civilians is moving westwards. The risk of incidents like that is increasing with Russia targeting energy infrastructure somewhere on Ukraine’s western border. There are two reactions that need to be applied at the level of NATO and the international community. One is strengthening NATO capacities, but another thing, equally important, is strengthening Ukraine’s ability to protect its sky. Ukraine is doing amazingly well in terms of the share of incoming missiles it shoots down but the better air defense systems Ukraine possesses, the lower the risks are for Ukraine and the neighboring countries. Many countries understand and remain united on the judgment that the recent Poland incident is Russia’s fault. Had it not been for this war there would have been no debate about whatever incident. The answer is stronger support for Ukraine, not less support.

Expanding arms manufacturing is a long process

How likely now is a quicker provision of more powerful military aid to Ukraine, including air defenses, in the wake of the latest missile barrages?

The problem is very pragmatic, I would say, and it is a real problem, unfortunately. Quite many countries had not been paying significant attention to their defense systems for many years. And manufacturing capacities in this part of the world, with the exception of the United States, is not well-developed yet in contrast to what we now have for Ukraine and also for other countries’ own defenses. I know counties are doing a lot, we are doing the same exercises as we’re going around looking for something more that we can send to Ukraine, and we do that.

But the amount of equipment in these countries’ possession is not unlimited and the potential to produce more hasn’t yet been developed. The problem remains in place despite Ukraine using the weapons provided to its army that are of a very high level of efficiency. I think the biggest problem was the delay in the beginning. We’d been providing military aid to Ukraine even before the invasion. I was in Kyiv on Feb 10, and our Stingers came into Ukraine just a couple of days later. We were among a couple of countries doing this over that period. There was also medical equipment and other non-lethal aid. For many counties, it was a no-go to provide lethal weapons, although as time went by, they started providing more and more of that. There is also this strange debate about defensive and attack weapons: whether they should send attack weapons to a country defending itself. We’ve lost so many lives, unfortunately, along the way of this debate.

Are discussions now underway internationally, to boost arms and ammunition production to meet the new challenges?

Of course, because there’s no other way. In the Western part of the world, countries are increasing their defense spending. They will have to be able to buy something for that money. There’s a certain need for expanded manufacturing. Manufacturers were previously not certain, for years, whether they should expand production, whether it will be ensured by government guarantees. Now the demand is in place, but expanding arms manufacturing is a long process. So we are now paying a very high price for the mistakes made in the past, including in gas policy, energy policy, and the problems is that it’s the Ukrainians who are paying the highest price of all.

Belarus has long been a threat, now it’s Russia’s accomplice

A military threat from Belarus: how relevant is the issue for Lithuania at the moment?

From the moment where we saw this buildup of military personnel late 2021 and early 2022, we’ve already pointed out to our partners that this is already changing the security situation for us, Poland, and the region dramatically. The Zapad drills have always been a complicated issue for us because their scenarios pointed to some countries in our neighborhood. While it could all be propaganda, but with the countries like these, you always need to be careful. But the problem is that after 2020, Lukashenko basically became the person with no options. Before that, there had been at least some scent of legitimacy and he was able to flirt sometimes with the Kremlin, then with Brussels, and then with Moscow again, so he was not stuck in the corner. After 2020, when he basically stole the election, he had no room for maneuver. He basically granted the territory of Belarus to Russia as a military territory, which is now being exploited by the Russian army, including for training those called up for military service in the latest mobilization campaign.

So Belarus has long been a threat but now it is also an accomplice. Lukashenko is part of Putin’s game. He is also a war criminal, just like Putin. Indeed, he says he is not sending his troops, although he might just not have as many. But all the attacks started from Belarusian soil. He let them do it. There is no other choice but to admit that we now have a much longer border with Russia than we used to have.

Russia was smart enough to make some countries energy-dependent

While fighting on the ground in Ukraine, Russia is also targeting Europe through "artificial crises" as their hybrid tool of war: what is Lithuania's response to these challenges? What is Europe’s response?

A funny thing is that when the invasion started, Lithuania got quite a lot of attention as people were saying: “Oh, you were right all along.” But you don’t need to be Einstein to see that when something walks like a duck and talks like a duck, then it is a duck. In numerous interviews this spring, I said: “Look for Russia arranging artificial crises along the way. That would be food and energy.” When I was asked how Lithuania is fighting Russian propaganda, I would say “Mind your own countries. Russia will be doing this on your soil, in your media. These will be things that have nothing in common with war, like high inflation, stupid government, people suffering from wrong decisions…” It was predictable. And here we are. It started from grain, from this debate that Africa is starving because there’ll be no food and because Russia can’t steal all Ukrainian grain. This manipulated western sensitivity to problems in poorer countries. But also this raised the potential of another migration wave, something Russia wanted to ignite definitely, to put pressure on the southern European countries. My minister of foreign affairs was traveling around the globe, calling to create a coalition of the willing to find a solution for Ukraine to export grain. Then came the UN solution, which is working, but Russia is still popping in and out of the deal, therefore it remains very risky.

But with energy, is even more complicated. Russia has been smart enough to create this dependency and hook some of the countries on Russian supplies with no alternatives. And these counties were thinking, ironically, that, whatever happens, we will have to deal with Russia. Whatever it is, war in Georgia, annexation of Crimea, annexation of eastern Ukraine, Russia still is a reliable supplier, they thought. As for that long debate on oil and gas sanctions, there were voices telling that they are not ready to impose such restrictions and that two more years were needed to do that. But Russia imposed those sanctions itself. We are now in a situation where the Russian gas supply is not functioning. Will we die through the winter? No. There are solutions being built as we speak and Europe will live through this. Now the biggest challenge is that some countries further west, people don’t see the links between high energy costs and Putin’s aggression so clearly, which is not the case in Lithuania (where we have 20 plus percent inflation) as our people know that we pay this high price because of Putin’s war, not because of our sanctions. So what I say to foreign politicians, my colleagues in the west that they have to repeat this to their people every day, so that the people don’t lose their focus. it is also important to remind people that there are no sanctions on Russian gas but there’s still no Russian gas on the market. That’s because Russia decided so.

Many things will happen now. Europe is already at a turning point where there will be no way back. Which is good. That’s because any dependency on autocrats is always a very risky business. And we know that from our own experience because we were in this sort of situation in 2008. Gazprom was charging us the craziest price in Europe. So we decided then that we need an alternative supply, and that’s why we have an LNG terminal and we are safe. While paying a higher price due to speculation on the market, we are not contemplating issues of supply security.

And when someone complains that their energy bills doubled, I tell them, “Look you have a house, you have electricity, heating, and running water, while many have none of that.” So this is a very modest price we are paying.

Green transition is a long-term solution against Russian energy blackmail

At a security forum in October, you said there would never be cooperation and business as usual with Russia. How will it be ensured in practice?

The long-term solution is Green Transition, which is the policy of the European Union anyway. Many politicians used to see it only as a bow to the Climate Change aspect only. But this is also about geopolitics because it is often the case that fossil fuels are in the possession of not-so-democratic countries. So the less money we send to Russia for fossil fuels, the less strength it can get to pose a threat to Europe.

When this crisis started, there were some suggesting that Green Transition should be delayed for some time. What I say is that not only should we not delay it, we should speed it up. This is a long-term solution because, if Europe becomes independent of Russian fuels, Russia basically has nothing to offer. We have to accelerate the projects that we have in the pipeline of renewable energy, to have them done two or three years ahead of schedule. It’s the price hike that is pushing us to do it but it’s also understanding that nobody knows whether Russia one day becomes a normal state. I don’t think this will happen sooner than in 20 years. So this is the timeframe in which Europe should get rid of CO2 and fossil fuels. This is the right way because this way you cannot build up dependency on Russia again.

Patriarch Kirill is a political and military figure, not a church leader

Speaking of Russia’s influence tools, questions arise regarding the role of the Russian Orthodox Church and Patriarch Kirill personally in supporting the war of aggression. It was reported that Lithuania has banned Kirill from entering the country. What is the situation of the Lithuanian Orthodox Church and Orthodoxy in Lithuania in general?

Such influence in Lithuania is marginal, I would say, because we are a Catholic country and the Russian Orthodox minority is a small one. The second-largest minority is Polish, which is also Catholic. The Lithuanian Orthodox Church is part of the Moscow Patriarchate. At the onset of war, I held a meeting with religious leaders, including Orthodox, to discuss support that religious communities could provide, including to refugees and broader – to Ukraine. At that point, the Orthodox church issued a very reasonable statement on how they feel. Unfortunately, in a very short period of time, they changed their mind. Clerics that did not agree with the stance of the Moscow Patriarchate had to leave the church. It is a problem for those who are Orthodox by faith, who support Ukraine and don’t believe what Russia says about a “sacred war,” who know that Patriarch Kirill is rather a political and military figure rather than a church leader. They just have no church to go to. It’s also a problem for Orthodox Ukrainians who are staying in Lithuania. There is an initiative, put forward by those practicing faith, on how to have a direct rule of Constantinople for their practices but these are church affairs where nothing passes easily. The Moscow Patriarchate is now trying to be obedient to the Kremlin’s mainstream lines but it has limited effect in Lithuania. Those who found it unacceptable simply left the church.

Lithuania is among those fighting hard to include Patriarch Kirill in the sanctions list at the European level. We have some colleagues who unfortunately help him to evade this list, but we are making all we can not let this question be watered down. This person has earned to be put on that sanctions list.

More people are now seeing that freedom is not air to be taken for granted

Ukraine aspires to become a full member of the European community. The ongoing war significantly increased this sort of public demand in Ukrainian society. Of which European structures do you see post-war Ukraine as part?

Lithuania has supported the idea of Ukraine’s membership in the EU even before it was cool. Some were thinking that this was not a rational idea, that Ukraine is too big and has too many problems, but my country for many years, whatever ruling party we had in government, was always saying that we can’t have this discussion with Ukraine, like “Do your reforms, it’s good for your people” and at the same time have no reward in the horizon. It is very complicated for any government to sustain this support for reforms in the beginning if rewards come in 10 to 15 years.

In our case, when we knew we were joining the European Union, we were working hard, able to make significant progress, but we had this very clear motivation, not this flawed “Maybe, one day in the future.” So I think this debate was a little bit unfair. Now it is much more straightforward because there’s a decision on candidacy, which is good. What we try to say to our friends in Europe is that Russia has always been claiming that the West is in decay, and so are its values, and that there’s demand for “traditional values” (Othodoxy, Autocracy, Nation), while things like diversity are a no-go.

But there is a big country that is saying it wants to become part of Europe. This is the most important motif for Europe to understand. That this is in high demand and we must be supportive. It is obvious. Of course, there are other formats where Ukraine will also find its way one way or the other.

After war, Ukraine will be rebuilt and become better, I’m sure of this. This better country will also be the best example for countries that forgot what it is to fight for freedom and always took freedom for granted. After WW2, there was no idea that someone has to fight for it… We did fight for it though, 30 years ago, but for many nations, this memory is long gone. Now people are seeing that this is not the air that you breathe, this is something that can be taken from you by a dictator in a red house. Ukraine is an example for many European countries but the pity is that the price you’re paying is so high.

Lithuania and Ukraine have a natural bond

What role can be played by local unions between European countries, in particular, Lithuania and Ukraine?

It is always so in any bigger formats, including the EU. Despite the fact that we have the EU of 27 nations, there are still blocs of like-minded countries on particular issues. We don’t need a special agreement with Ukraine to be together until the victory and beyond. We’ve been there for so many years before the war, we’re now here, and we’ll remain here. It will be a natural drive that will not stem from our Soviet past (because Poland was not part of the Soviet Union) but from the earlier parts of history when we had many things in common. There are so many cultural ties and historical ties that we share. We’ve always been a territory that’s been anti-Muscovia all the way, for hundreds of years. People expelled from Moscow were usually finding shelter in this part of the world, be it Kyiv, or Vilnius, or Warsaw. We have a natural bond, and when there is a problem, when there is urgency, like the war in Ukraine, we rally around it and do whatever it takes. There’s also Belarus which is temporarily occupied by Lukashenko. It is also part of the same concept, the territory of the free people before the Russian Empire came and grabbed their lands.

Currently, there are discussions about the post-war reconstruction of Ukraine. What ways do you see to restore the Ukrainian economy? Does Lithuania participate in the European campaign to support the Ukrainian energy sector affected by Russian strikes? Do Lithuanian businesses plan to participate in the reconstruction of Ukraine?

When the recent strike happened in October, I asked my minister of energy to be in close touch with Minister Halushchenko and Ukrenergo and look at what we can do. So we are in a constant process of looking for things we can find, order, buy, and send to Ukraine. This is as high on the agenda as military support because both wars are very important. The Ukrainian Army is very strong because they have support from western partners. But the civilians in Ukraine also need at least some things that would prevent their lives from becoming miserable – and that’s exactly what Russia’s intention is.

But from a broader reconstruction perspective, we have spotted out some of the projects in which we are already engaged, like reconstruction of bridges and schools. The government made this decision a couple of months ago. But also there’s an interest on the part of our business community to be part of a larger reconstruction effort when there is an opportunity. Now what’s important is that we rebuild services and infrastructure at least at the basic level so that the people in Ukraine could continue to live there while the war is going on. When the war ends, we will have a very significant effort by the international community to rebuild everything from scratch in many cases.

Russia needs talks to get a respite, not peace

Discussions are now emerging more frequently about ending the war, in particular, through negotiations. What’s your attitude to the idea of such talks now? Does it even make sense to talk with the current Russian leadership?

Frankly, I see don’t see Russia’s interest in peace negotiations. I see their interest in getting a respite. But if somebody makes the same mistake like it was in 2014 with Minsk, this is not the end of the war, this is not peace. I think this is what has been publicly said by other leaders, that there is no understanding of peace that is different from Ukraine’s understanding of peace. Yes, it is likely that at some point, the war will end with some negotiations but nobody has a right to impose on Ukraine an obligation to negotiate if there is no negotiation on the other side. What Russia is doing is dictating. They want other countries to take what happened as fait accompli. They need time, they need efforts to rebuild their military capacities, other capacities, to rearrange their economy in the view of sanctions. Perhaps they want to wait for a couple of years until governments change in some European countries or in the United States, invest heavily maybe in those changes, to push toward one result or the other. But that is not the end of the war. I think the aim of negotiations should be the end of the war.

Russia is exploiting the advantages of the democratic world

It was reported by the Financial Times that you are being viewed as a potential candidate to replace Jens Stoltenberg as NATO secretary general. How do you think NATO would benefit from having someone from a Baltic State at the helm of the organization?

I will not be speaking about myself because I don’t have any comments on this as you will hear all sorts of names coming up as is usually the case. But I think that there has not yet been a secretary general from the region, and I speak about the region in the broader concept, not necessarily the Baltic States, that would have an understanding of a major threat that is now articulated in the Madrid Summit declaration.

So I cannot say that we are much smarter or better than others. When people ask me why other countries did not see this coming, this is because of another kind of historical perspective.

After WW2, these countries were busy making their lives better, while we were under occupation. We had to fight to get our country back. So we still know how to fight in this part of the region. I’m not talking about the military but the political fight. And I do understand this Fukuyamish approach to the world, that it would be so much better if there were no wars, if there was globalization and mutual benefit, but of course there are countries that cannot be traded into civilization. The problem is that these countries are trying to exploit the strengths that we have: freedom of speech, fair and free election, strong court system, private property… They are using this against us. They are spreading propaganda, placing money in our banks, their kids, wives, mistresses, and mothers-in-law treated in our hospitals or vacationing on Lake Como, so this is how they misuse these good things. This is important to know. Maybe a different perspective... But in my opinion, the current secretary general does have a very accurate understanding of what Russia is.

Ievgen Matiushenko

Photo: Arnas Strumila, DELFI

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